A New Hope Rises: Mazzy Star's Sandoval makes a solo statement
by Neva Chonin, San Francisco Chronicle
It's almost uncanny. Even with bright afternoon sunlight as a backdrop, Hope Sandoval looks ethereal as she hurries into San Francisco's Liberties pub 45 minutes late for her interview. The effect is partly physical: The singer a critic once described as "too fragile for this world" is indeed a lithe slip of a thing in her cotton summer dress, with a face almost pre- Raphaelite in its delicacy.
Sandoval's wraithlike aura is also accentuated by a conversational style so cryptic it borders on verbal shorthand. She explains her tardiness in three shy words: "Traffic," she says. "The bridge."
The once and future singer of the neo-psychedelic cult band Mazzy Star moved to the East Bay from Los Angeles in the mid-1990s because, she says, the area seemed "nice." She currently divides her time between Berkeley and London.
On this particular afternoon, she's made the grueling journey across the Bay Bridge to promote last week's release of "Bavarian Fruit Bread" (Rough Trade/Sanctuary Records), the CD she recorded with the Warm Inventions, her solo project with ex-My Bloody Valentine drummer Colm O'Ciosoig.
Recorded in Oakland, London and Oslo, "Bavarian Fruit Bread" picks up where the Warm Inventions' 2000 EP, "At the Doorway Again," left off. It's as dreamily atmospheric and lovelorn as any Mazzy Star album, but replaces that band's layered, trippy arrangements with a relatively Spartan mix of guitar, harmonica, keyboards, strings and Sandoval's gently wafting voice. It's certainly miles away from the walls of shimmering distortion O'Ciosoig helped create as a member of My Bloody Valentine.
Sandoval, speaking one decibel above a whisper as she nurses a glass of white wine, says that the album's songs -- one of which, the opening track "Drop," features her ex-boyfriend, former Jesus and Mary Chain guitarist William Reid, as co-writer -- "just came together that way. We liked the way they sounded in rehearsal and didn't want to do too much to them." A little laugh. "They're definitely less layered than Colm's band. (My Bloody Valentine) would have had 20 guitars one on top of the other."
The Warm Inventions co-founders met through a mutual friend four years ago. At the time Sandoval was freshly on hiatus from her role as lead chanteuse for Mazzy Star, the band she and David Roback formed in 1989 out of Los Angeles' "paisley underground" scene, which also produced bands such as the Dream Syndicate, Opal and Rain Parade.
Mazzy Star soon expanded beyond the borders of Southern California's neo- psychedelia. After releasing an acclaimed debut album, "She Hangs Brightly" on Rough Trade in 1990, Roback and Sandoval (backed by supporting musicians) signed with Capitol for their second album, 1993's "So Tonight That I Might See." That CD went platinum when its hypnotic, distortion-drenched guitars and Sandoval's echoing, languid tales of love and longing began circulating on MTV and started a cult following that remains active five years after the last Mazzy Star album, "Among My Swan."
These days most fans consider Mazzy a revered slice of music history, but Sandoval insists the band is alive and well, albeit moving in slow motion. She and Roback, who lives in Norway, have been working on a new album, and last year the two played seven London shows that mixed new songs with older material.
"We've always had big gaps between records," Sandoval explains. "Generally we just play music when we feel like it." Has the Mazzy sound changed much in the past five years? "It'll definitely have heavy guitar and a lot of piano, but we're still working on it. We'll see what happens." When it's released -- recording is in the early stages, and no date is set - - the new album will mark the band's return to its original label, Rough Trade, which is also releasing "Bavarian Fruit Bread." Mazzy Star's deal with Capitol Records ended, none too happily, in 1996, and Sandoval says she's relieved to be returning to the indie-label fold.
During the indie-chic of the early '90s, "it seemed record companies wanted bands to be creative because they didn't know how to manufacture underground music," she recalls. "We could do our own thing and go at our own pace. But that changed when major labels started wanting bands that would sell 7 million records. They had a formula. And suddenly all these people wanted to come to the studio to keep track of what we were doing and make sure we were following that formula. So we got out."
That determination is as much a part of Sandoval as her wispy voice: She might look and sound fragile, but she consistently does things her way, from performing shows in near darkness and avoiding the press to recording demo tapes while still a teenager. Raised in East Los Angeles, she began taking guitar classes at 13 and eventually formed the folk group Going Home with her best friend. One of their cassettes made its way to Roback, then a member of Opal, and he went on to produce a (never released) album for the duo. He and Sandoval formed the core of Mazzy Star soon afterward.
Mazzy soon earned a reputation for its frosty live shows, typified by low lights and Sandoval's pronounced unease. Now, as she and O'Ciosoig assemble a band and begin rehearsals for a tour in support of "Bavarian Fruit Bread," the stage-shy singer confesses she still feels awkward.
"It's not so easy to get up in front of people and perform music that's so personal," she says. "People are used to having a physical performance. I just stand there, and I don't talk. There's a lot of pressure to chitchat with the audience. But when they're in school, people don't want to get up in front of their classroom when they have to talk about themselves or a project. It's always nerve-racking, don't you think? That's why I like to keep it as dark as possible, because it's better when I can't see the audience."
Still, Sandoval is excited about the process of putting together a band and hopeful that performing with the Warm Inventions will prove as "fun" as her London appearances with Roback. Asked if the two Mazzy Star founders have plans for any more performances before releasing their next album, Sandoval can only shrug.
"As long as we're friends, we'll play music together," she replies, managing to sound both maddeningly vagueand perfectly sensible at the same time. "We just want to explore, you know?"